The Evacuation Of Dunkirk Part Five: Air Operations & Command-Level Games

August 11, 2017 by oriskany

Here we are, at last, Beasts of War, at the conclusion of this week’s explorations into Operation Dynamo, prompted by the movie “Dunkirk” that’s now playing in theatres. Essentially, this was the operation that evacuated 338,000 Allied troops who’d been trapped against the English Channel by the German invasion of France in 1940.

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So far this week we’ve looked at Dunkirk’s place in the World War II timeline and how this desperate situation came about. We then looked at different ways Dunkirk-themed engagements can be brought to the table in 15mm, 20mm, and 28mm wargames.

Okay, so let’s “zoom out” a little from the foxholes and tank turrets of these miniature games, and take a look at the big picture for Dunkirk. First we’ll look at the crucial role that airpower played for both sides during these evacuations, and then discuss how larger, command-scale games can put you at the Dunkirk general’s table.

The Question Of Airpower

Since World War I, airpower is always been an important part of battlefield operations. In World War II it would become critical, and one of the first episodes that proved what airpower could (and couldn’t) was Operation Dynamo.

So again, German spearheads have pulled off a 200+ mile “left hook” from the Ardennes, through Belgium, and into France, cutting all the way to the English Channel and splitting off about 400,000 British and French troops in a pocket that was being pressed helplessly against the English Channel coast.

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The next step for the Germans seems simple: order the panzers (there were PLENTY there) to make one more push and wipe out this pocket. The British had started their “Dynamo” evacuations, but they’d never have time to pull this off, right? Wrong. Because the Germans ordered their panzers to halt, and instead turned to their airpower.

Much ink has been spilled about this controversial “halt order.” Some say it was madness, because if the BEF had been wiped out at Dunkirk than England really WOULD lay defenceless against subsequent German invasion. Others maintain that the panzer spearheads were exhausted and shredded by this point, so they had to pause and regroup.

In any event, Hermann Göring promised Hitler and the generals that his Luftwaffe (air force) could wipe out the British and French at Dunkirk. This seems crazy in hindsight, since we know that airpower NEVER wins a war alone. But recall that airpower was still “new” in 1940, and so far the Luftwaffe had crushed anything it was aimed at.

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So the British start their evacuation in the last days of May. The German ground forces are (for better or worse) catching their breath and giving the British time to get Dynamo started. The Luftwaffe starts intense bombing of Dunkirk, and the RAF (Royal Air Force) swoops in to the BEF’s defence.

When it comes to airpower, the British had been making their own controversial decisions. Earlier in the campaign, the British had by and large withdrawn all their fighter squadrons, essentially leaving France to her fate. British commanders realized that these precious fighters would be needed very shortly to defend Britain herself.

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But with the “Dynamo” evacuations under ruthless Luftwaffe bombing and the fate of the BEF in the balance (at this point virtually the whole British Army that wasn’t scattered across the worldwide empire), the RAF was ordered back into the fray and a gigantic air battle erupted over the port and beaches of Dunkirk.

Comparing The Air Fleets

The Battle for France (including Dunkirk) probably sees the German Luftwaffe at the very height of its power (the very next campaign sees it defeated at the Battle of Britain). The Luftwaffe had about 2,400 aircraft at this point broken down into the following major types.

Most importantly we have their mainstay fighter, the Messerschmitt Bf-109 (mostly the “E”) variant. This was an excellent fighter for its day, fast and manoeuvrable, armed with twin 20mm automatic cannons and a pair of 7.92mm FF15 MGs (not unlike the MG34s being used by infantry squads).

The Germans also have the infamous Junkers Ju-87B “Stuka” dive-bomber, the awful, ugly, shrieking symbol of the Blitzkrieg that terrorized Europe from 1939 to 1941. The Stuka was perfect for precision strikes on ships that were trying to evacuate troops from Dunkirk, but was terribly vulnerable to enemy fighters if not protected by “109s”.

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Other German types commonly seen over Dunkirk were the Junkers Ju-88, Dornier Do-17, and He-111C medium bombers. We also see lots of Messerschmitt Bf-110 “Zerstörer (“destroyer”) twin-engine “heavy fighters” – very ponderous in a dogfight but packing a whopping quadruple array of 20mm automatic cannon.

While the British have an oddball collection of bombers in service (this is long before the Lancaster, the Mosquito, the Typhoon or the Tempest), the RAF at this time really comes down to two fighter types: The Hawker Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire IA.

The Hawker Hurricane was Britain’s first monoplane fighter, made of stressed metal, wood, and even fabric stretched over a metal frame. Honestly it was nearing the end of its life as a front line fighter by this point, but with eight Browning .303 machine guns, it still packed a fearsome close-range punch.

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The plan was to replace the Hurricane with the Spitfire, an aircraft type to become one of the most beautiful and iconic pieces of equipment to come out of World War II. But in early 1940 this replacement wasn’t even close to complete, and the redoubtable Hurricane would still account for the vast majority of RAF squadron strength.

The general doctrine for RAF fighter squadrons at this time was for the Spitfires to tangle with German Bf-109 fighters, thus freeing the slower Hurricanes (who still packed the same firepower as the Spitfire) to go after the Stukas and other German bombers. This way both RAF types were able to leverage their full strengths.

The RAF, however, was hampered by three basic drawbacks at Dunkirk. One, they had to fly across the Channel to engage at Dunkirk, which means they only had about 20 minutes of fuel (at full throttle) with which to dogfight over the actual combat area.

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Second, the RAF was still using a tragically antiquated three-plane formation: A leader, a wingman, and a so-called “tail-end Charlie” that was supposed to cover them both. The problem with a three-man fighter formation is that’s someone is always on their own without a wingman, and too often this “tail-end Charlie” was a flying dead man.

Third, the RAF was grossly outnumbered, 4:1 by some estimates.

Yet despite all these disadvantages, the RAF was able to hold the Luftwaffe back to a sufficient degree that Operation Dynamo could get started. By the time the Germans realized the Luftwaffe wouldn’t be able to do the job alone (and ordered their tanks to get moving again), it was largely too late.

Command Level Games

Of course, any of these miniature games, regardless of the scale, are simply too small to stage a battle that will affect the outcome of Operation Dynamo, or even provide a meaningful insight into the context of what was going on. There are some 800,000 men involved in a battle area initially 40 miles across. You gonna do that in 28mm?

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It’s a different kind of game, and it’s frankly not for everyone. But if this kind of perspective interests you, then it’s time to step up to the general’s table and start pushing divisions, corps, and armies around. It’s time for the Command Level game.

White Dog Games’ “A Spoiled Victory: Dunkirk 1940” (Paul Fish, Hermann Luttmann, 2014) is a good place to start, a solitaire operational-level setup where the player tries to “beat the game” and evacuate as many regiments, brigades, and divisions as he can before the Germans implode the Dunkirk Pocket.

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Even better is GMT’s “Case Yellow, 1940: The German Blitzkrieg in the West.” GMT makes some of the best operational-level games out there, and with this one you can play the whole campaign in the west as either the Germans or the Allies, and see of a “Dunkirk” situation even happens at all.

Dunkirk: Summary & Aftermath

By June 4, Operation Dynamo was drawing to a close. Over 330,000 troops (240,000 British and 98,000 French had been evacuated. Only 35,000 remained to make the final defence (mostly the French 2nd Light Mechanized and 68th Infantry Divisions). Dunkirk was finally taken by the Germans.

What many people don’t realize is that this wasn’t even close to the end of the Battle of France. This was the end of the first phase, “Case Yellow.” Now the Germans pivoted south, reorganized, and launched “Case Red” – the invasion of interior France and the drive on Paris. Here, France would largely fight alone until her final surrender.

Some very small British units were still in France, but this only led to smaller, lesser-known evacuations that would have to be undertaken later in June. These include Operation Cycle (evacuation via Le Havre) and Operation Ariel various western French ports, including Sainte Nazaire).

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Sadly for the British, these kinds of sea evacuations were just getting started. Similar evacuations would have to be undertaken from East Africa, Greece, and Crete before the war finally started to turn. But Dunkirk was a miracle nonetheless, a daring and complex operation that HAD to succeed if Britain hoped to continue the fight.

The troops who were rescued were understandably relieved. The people also welcomed them home, and Britain was swept by a wave of celebration and thanksgiving. Churchill was quick to warn the people, however, not to look at Dunkirk as a “victory.” As he would say: “Wars are not won by evacuations.”

This concludes our look at Dunkirk. If you’ve seen the new movie, tell us what you thought of it in the comments below. Do you plan to bring Dunkirk or its surrounding battles to the table top? What are your thoughts on wargaming in the “Miracle of Dunkirk?”

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